The claim: Left-wing activists executed the first ‘domestic terrorist attack’ at the US Capitol in 1983
More than a year after a mob of thousands stormed the Capitol hoping to halt the certification of the 2020 election results, social media users are recirculating a claim that the Jan. 6, 2021, riot wasn’t the first attack of its kind.
“The first domestic terrorist attack against our Capitol and democracy was by left wing activist (sic) not Trump supporters on January 6th, 2021 as the main stream media and democrats are trying to make you believe,” reads a Feb. 7, 2021, Facebook post, which amassed 1,500 shares in 11 days.
The post further claims the first domestic terrorist attack at the Capitol was executed by left-wing activists, who attempted to “assassinate Republican Senators.”
But the Facebook post doesn’t get all the facts right.
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Though there is a specific legal definition of “domestic terrorism,” a number of attacks on the Capitol occurred prior to the 1983 bombing by the May 19th Communist Organization. The bombers also did not target Republican senators, as the post claims.
USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook user who shared the post for comment.
History of violence at Capitol
It’s true that the Jan. 6 riot wasn’t the first attack on the Captiol. But the 1983 attack mentioned in the claim was not the first, either, historians say.
The storied history of violence at the Capitol dates back to the early 19th century, when the British set the building on fire during the War of 1812. Between 1830 and 1861, there were at least 70 instances of violence at the Capitol, according to Joanne B. Freeman’s book “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.”
In 1835, for example, then-President Andrew Jackson was nearly assassinated emerging from the House chamber. In 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks, D-S.C., beat Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., with a walking cane, soaking the Senate floor in blood, according to a report from American University professor Audrey Kurth Cronin.
In perhaps the clearest parallel to Jan. 6, an anti-Abraham Lincoln mob attempted to break into the Capitol in 1861 to disrupt the electoral vote count. Capitol security did not let the rioters enter the building because they didn’t have the proper credentials, Time magazine reported.
Other forms of violence emerged in the 1900s:
The Capitol attack referenced in the post took place in November 1983.
The May 19th Communist Organization, a left-wing, women-led militant group, set off a bomb on the second floor of the building’s north wing, according to Politico. No one was killed, which a statement from the group said was intentional – contrary to the Facebook post’s claim that there was an attempt to “assassinate Republican senators.”,”
Meanwhile, during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, four rioters and one police officer died. Two police officers died by suicide after the attack.
Murky definition of ‘domestic terrorism’
While numerous attacks on the Capitol have occurred, determining which qualify as “domestic terrorism” is tricky.
“There is no single, consensus definition of terrorism, to the frustration of many scholars,” said Heather Williams, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation with expertise in terrorism. “There are some generally accepted tenets throughout the various definitions of terrorism, primarily that: 1. It is an act of violence or the threat of violence, 2. It is intended to serve a political purpose.”
Williams added that there is also a legal definition. Federal law defines domestic terrorism as the following, according to a July 2 Congressional Research Service report:
“Activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
Domestic terrorism in America is additionally complicated by the fact that it’s not a crime under federal law. That’s because the terms that define domestic terrorism aren’t elements of criminal offenses themselves, according to the CRS report.
This often leaves what is or isn’t “domestic terrorism” up to interpretation, making it difficult to prosecute.
Under these guidelines, a number of the above attacks could be deemed domestic terrorism.
Williams told USA TODAY that she would generally classify the 1915 bombing, 1954 shooting and 1971 bombing as acts of terrorism, while she’d describe the 1861 and 2021 events as insurrection. That’s because the former were intended to affect American politics, whereas the latter intended to impede government proceedings. She would not consider the other events as either, she said.
But, Williams noted, “there is no definitive answer as to which constitute acts of terrorism.”
Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, told USA TODAY the incidents “could be charged as federal crimes of terrorism if they occurred today,” citing the fact that terrorism wasn’t always defined in legal statutes.
The Jan. 6 Capitol riot was called domestic terrorism by the White House, FBI and Justice Department, but prosecutors are avoiding domestic terrorism charges for Jan. 6 defendants, Politico reported.
The Biden administration announced June 15 its strategy to counter homegrown violence, which is the first plan of its kind. It takes a four-pronged approach to the issue, focusing on increasing understanding of domestic terrorism, preventing recruitment and mobilization, disrupting activity and confronting existing long-term contributors to it.
Our rating: Partly false
Based on our research, we rate PARTLY FALSE the claim that left-wing activists executed the first “domestic terrorist attack” at the U.S. Capitol in 1983. The bombers did not target Republican Senators, as the post claims. And it’s overreaching to assert any particular event was the first domestic terrorist attack given the lack of agreement on the definition of that term. A number of attacks on the Capitol occurred prior to the 1983 bombing by the left-wing May 19th Communist Organization that could be considered domestic terrorism.
Our fact-check sources:
- U.S. House of Representatives, retrieved Feb. 18, The Burning of the Capitol in 1814
- Google Books, published Sept. 11, 2018, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
- American University, Feb. 9, The Capitol Has Been Attacked Before: This Time It Was Different
- Time Magazine, Jan. 15, 2021, ‘Alarmingly Similar.’ What the Chaos Around Lincoln’s First Inauguration Can Tell Us About Today, According to Historians
- U.S. Senate, retrieved Feb. 18, Bomb Rocks Capitol
- Britannica, retrieved Feb. 18, Weather Underground
- U.S. House of Representatives, retrieved Feb. 18, 1954 Shooting in the House Chamber
- Washington Post, April 23, 1999, Capitol Shooter’s Mind-Set Detailed
- Politico, May 3, 2020, The Dark History of America’s First Female Terrorist Group
- New York Times, Jan. 5, These Are the People Who Died in Connection With the Capitol Riot
- Congressional Research Service, July 2, 2021, Domestic Terrorism: Overview of Federal Criminal Law and Constitutional Issues
- Time Magazine, Jan. 24, Prosecuting Domestic Terrorism Is Notoriously Difficult. This New Team of Lawyers Has A Mounting Caseload
- Michael German, Feb. 24, Email interview with USA TODAY
- Heather Williams, Feb. 24, Email interview with USA TODAY
- Politico, Jan. 4, Why DOJ is avoiding domestic terrorism sentences for Jan. 6 defendants
- The White House, June 15, 2021, FACT SHEET: National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism
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